Closer magazine prompts Twitter storm by "misuse" of celebrity doctor's comments

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We have been receiving messages from supporters and the wider public about comments attributed to Dr Christian Jessen appearing in the current edition of Closer Magazine. Baby Milk Action tried to contact Dr Jessen via his agent and has confirmed that Dr Jessen's comments were taken out of context. A corrected statement - over which we still have some concerns - has been posted on the Closer website and we await news on what correction will be made in the next print edition. Further details below.

Closer quote a "misuse" of Dr Jessen's comment

Closer quoted Dr Jessen in a section on how long to breastfeed under the heading "After 6 months there is no need".

There followed a quote suggesting "breastfed older children risk becoming psychologically dependent on the mother. This could result in behavioural problems as they grow up."

This prompted concerned discussion on social media - and emails to Baby Milk Action - leading to a follow-up article on the Closer website, which Dr Jessen has linked to from his Twitter feed. This is presented by the editor of Closer as a news story with the heading "Dr Christian in Twitter breastfeeding storm". It provides a longer quote from Dr Jessen, with no apology for the shorter version printed in the magazine, which in an email to Baby Milk Action his agent describes as a "misuse" of the comment he originally provided. Examination of Dr Jessen's Twitter feed shows he tried to end the controversy yesterday (21 January) by tweeting that his comments "were taken completely out of context!"

The original comment was to accompany an article about Michelle Atkin who is planning to breastfed a child until 8 years of age. The quote in the article linked to by Dr Jessen states: "Breast milk is beneficial to a baby's immune system for the first six months, but there is no harm in continuing to do it as long as the child has a healthy diet. If a child is being breast fed until eight, this may make them overly dependent on their mother. However if they are being breast-fed at four there is no harm in this. I support women who want to breastfeed and would never wish to discourage anyone from doing so."

This is still not in line with health recommendations. The NHS and the World Health Organisation comment that only breastfeeding is required for the first six months and continuing breastfeeding beyond this while introducing other foods is recommended. We have asked Dr Jessen to correct his statement, with reference to NHS and WHO statements (see below).

Michelle Atkin's response to the controversy - as posted on Baby Milk Action's Facebook page - is given below.

Mike Brady, Campaigns and Networking Coordinator at Baby Milk Action, said:

"This seems to be a case of sloppy journalism or a wish to create controversy resulting in false information being associated with a medical expert. Closer dresses up the 'clarification' as a news story focussed on Dr Jessen being caught up in a Twitter storm instead of apologising for misusing his comment and undertaking to publish a correction in the next print edition. The recommendations from the NHS and the World Health Organisation on breastfeeding are clear and not in conflict. Too often sections of the media try to gain attention - and traffic in this internet age - by misreporting on infant feeding issues or trying to provoke arguments between mothers about how they feed their babies."

NHS recommendations on breastfeeding not at odds with WHO

We have again contacted Dr Jessen about his clarification as the Closer follow-up article quotes him as suggesting that the NHS position is at odds with that of the World Health Organisation (WHO). He is quoted as saying: "Advice on breast feeding is always changing. The World Health Organisation recommends breast feeding for up to two years, while the NHS recommends breast feeding for the first six months."

This is incorrect. This is what it states on the NHS website: "Exclusive breastfeeding (giving your baby breast milk only) is recommended for around the first six months (26 weeks) of your baby's life. After that, giving your baby breast milk alongside other food will help them continue to grow and develop."

World Health Assembly Resolutions on breastfeeding duration

The UK Government has repeatedly supported Resolutions at the World Health Assembly setting out WHO's recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding into the second year of life and beyond alongside complementary foods, which has been the position since the Global Strategy on Infant and Young Child Feeding was adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2001. 

Prior to that, the 1981 International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes suggested complementary foods should be introduced at around 4-6 months of age, which was adjusted to "about 6 months" in 1994 (Resolution 47.5). The optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding was given as 6 months in 2001 (Resolution 54.2) following studies of exclusively breastfed children in countries on different continents.

While it is true that the NHS does not emphasise breastfeeding into the second year of life and beyond, it certainly does not recommend breastfeeding to only six months - that is the period for which "exclusive" breastfeeding is recommended.

Some publishers love controversy - it boosts advertising revenue

I have deliberately not linked to Closer magazine in this article. In this internet age, clicks count. So if you are offended by Closer's sloppy journalistic standards and "misuse" of Dr Jessen's quote, the best thing to do is ignore it or you might encourage them. That said, the intention of the mother involved in the original story was to promote extended breastfeeding, so the last word is for her.

Michelle Atkin's response to the Closer story

"I'm the mum in question. Yes it's Closer mag and I was aware of their portrayal of stories but the intention of the story is to support mums who do choose to breastfeed over the age of one. It has sparked a lively discussion and debate as a result of the Dr comments and that's good. Before change and attitudes change talk has to happen. And when discussion starts we begin to hear people's views, which is good, even if we know them to be incorrect as it then presents the opportunity to change those views. 

"Nothing happens without dialogue - mothers need to know that long term bf, extended bf, natural term bf is normal for a lot of mums and they aren't alone. It's also good that people have not only the knowledge but also confidence to challenge a doctor in a public arena. 

"Closer have printed online an amended copy of what the doctor said - my view is - he was misquoted but even his correct quote needs revisiting. 

"We need doctors and other high profile people to actively support bf and use language that implies support not the opposite."